A wake-up call for Barack Obama

Will Judd Gregg's treachery and zero GOP votes for his stimulus package convince the president bipartisanship is dead?

Published February 13, 2009 10:15PM (EST)

It shouldn't have been a shock that the stimulus bill got zero Republican votes in the House, but I was a little surprised anyway. There had been talk about somewhere between six and 12 GOP members in Obama-supporting districts bucking their party, and Salon's Mike Madden reports that even the House leadership didn't expect to hold its caucus without any dissent.

Of course the bill passed the Democrat-controlled House overwhelmingly anyway, but I imagine House Minority Leader John Boehner will have a giddier Friday night than speaker Nancy Pelosi. Party on, John!

The bill is still expected to pass the Senate tonight, but with ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy unable to return for a second vote, it may only get 60 votes -- and that's if Sen. Sherrod Brown makes it back early from attending his mother's funeral. As Atrios noted today, "You'd think in that backslapping love nest known as the US Senate, a Republican or two might tell Sherrod Brown that he doesn't have to rush back from his mother's funeral." But no. It's still possible, though unlikely, that one of three GOP Senate apostates who've supported the stimulus compromise could get cold feet. Obama will probably get the bill to his desk, but what will he have learned?

He better have learned that Washington bipartisanship is dead. If he hadn't already, he surely got the lesson last night, when GOP Sen. Judd Gregg publicly humiliated the president by withdrawing his bid to be Commerce secretary. Gregg, who'd voted to abolish his own agency but then lobbied Obama to get the job, had no business in this administration to begin with. But his disrespect for Obama, on a day that might have been hailed as a great victory with a House-Senate deal on the stimulus, was still shocking.

Nothing about Obama's policies changed between the time Gregg said yes and then suddenly said no. He recently backed a stimulus bill along the lines of the House-Senate compromise: "We need a robust one," Judd said after he was chosen last week. "I think the one that's pending is in the range we need. I do believe it's a good idea to do it at two levels, which this bill basically does, which is immediate stimulus and long-term initiatives which actually improve our competitiveness and our productivity." Then he rewarded Obama for reaching across the aisle with a political slap in the face. Classy.

Obama took political and economic risks trying to get Republican votes for his stimulus plan. His willingness to compromise by cutting spending and including massive tax cuts, most notably by reforming the alternative minimum tax, means the bill will be less stimulative than it should be. And even with those compromises, he still got almost zero GOP support. As he himself said in Fort Myers, Fla., this week, "You didn't send me to Washington to do nothing!" But if he continues to let Republicans shape his initiatives, and then obstruct even his attempts at compromise, that's exactly what he'll accomplish: nothing.

The compromise stimulus is probably better than nothing, with its expansion of food stamps and unemployment benefits, its tax rebates for low-income workers, aid to states and cities and billions for infrastructure projects. But it won't be as effective as a bigger spending bill would have been, and let's hope Obama doesn't come to regret how much he gave Republicans to get so little.

I still think it's possible Obama will earn some political capital among Republicans and independents outside of Washington with his efforts to reach across the aisle (yes, I also love puppies and kittens and romantic movies with happy endings). I enjoyed the symbolism of his hosting rollicking town halls in Elkhart, Ind. and Fort Myers., even though they didn't vote for him in November. That was actually the essence of his bipartisan approach during the campaign. A year ago, in Manchester, N.H., I noted the way he distinguished between Republican ideologues and Republican voters in his standard stump speech:

Acknowledging that "Republican operatives" will work to defeat his plans, he explained, "I'm more interested in Republicans and independents outside of Washington. We can reach out and create a working majority," and he added: "I'm in this race to win an election, but also to govern."

Well, he won the election with a few Republican votes (9 percent of GOP voters backed him, to John Kerry's 6 percent in 2004), but Washington Republicans are clearly going to make it hard for him to govern. GOP leaders are playing a game of chicken with Obama, and with the economy, by bucking a desperately needed stimulus package backed by a popular, newly elected president at a time of national emergency. They believe opposing Obama and his plans is the route back to power. I'm willing to grant that some Republican Congress members genuinely believe the stimulus is too expensive, but a lot of them voted against this bill because they put party loyalty ahead of the country. Let's hope more Republican voters reward Obama's faith in them by punishing GOP obstructionists in 2010.

In the meantime, let's hope Obama rewards Democrats' faith in him by being tougher on the GOP, by fighting harder for the policies and programs he believes will make a difference, not compromising their effectiveness for the sake of a handful of votes. Obama's party has only controlled the White House for 12 out of the last 40 years because Democrats routinely fail to deliver on their promises to voters (and also, paradoxically, because Lyndon Johnson did deliver on his civil rights promises, and left the door open to a racially divisive "Southern Strategy" that finally failed to work in 2008). He's a quick study; I assume he'll see what's gone on and change course. But if he doesn't, liberals need to remind him who elected him, and why. Judd Gregg sure as hell wasn't change we can believe in.


By Joan Walsh

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